By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Her son was not there Friday, but Pam Praytor made sure his spirit was.
“He loved his job,” she said. “He loved the cooking. He loved the driving. That’s why I’m a greeter here today. I wanted to be here for him because he would have been very excited that they have come back.’’
Her Pizza Hut name tag read: “Chris Lucas — Management.’’
From inside the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, 27-year-old Christopher Lucas grabbed a cord or a rope, and tried to hold the door shut against the 200 mph winds of the May 22 tornado. He would lose his life saving others. The tornado flattened the Pizza Hut.
Also killed at the restaurant were Gregan D. Sweet, 59, of Joplin; Carolane Collins, 62, of Eagle Rock; Lois Comfort, 66, of Webb City, and Kayleigh Teal, 16, of Pittsburg, Kan., another Pizza Hut employee who was trying to help Lucas.
Praytor was on hand Friday morning for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to reopen the Pizza Hut at 1901 S. Range Line Road.
Praytor thought her son was delivering pizza when the tornado struck. She figured he would be able to see it coming and drive out of its way to some place safe. She did not know until later that day that he had been at the restaurant and that his body had been recovered on the parking lot of the Aldi grocery store.
“We just miss him,” she said. “I am proud of what he did that day, but I just want him back. Today is very bittersweet,’’ Praytor said. “But I got to say goodbye to him that day. He loved to fish. He came by with some fish to clean. We spent four hours together before he died. I got to say goodbye to him.’’
Praytor said her son, had he lived, would have been able to see his new daughter, Anna Belle Chris Erin Lucas, who was born on Sept. 16.
“I have put together a scrapbook for her of all the stories and things that have been said about Chris,’’ she said. “I have a videodisc of the president’s speech. I was there for that speech. When (President Barack Obama) started talking about Chris, I thought, how does he know about my son? I could not believe it.
“I will show the scrapbook and video to her some day. This is what your daddy did.’’
Praytor said NPC International Inc., the world’s largest Pizza Hut franchisee, has created an award in her son’s name.
“It’s the Chris Lucas Courage and Service Award,” she said. “It’s for managers who have went above the call. It feels so good. NPC has done so much for us.’’
Both of NPC’s restaurants on Main Street and Range Line Road were in the path of the tornado.
“Reopening these two restaurants is very bittersweet,” said Jim Schwartz, president of NPC International. “While we are excited to open these two new great-looking restaurants, it also reminds us of the tragedy from just one year ago. I am incredibly proud of our team members for the strength, perseverance and respect they have shown throughout this re-building process.”
Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said Pizza Hut has roots in Joplin that extend back 40 years. He said Pizza Hut’s commitment to return so quickly is an example of the strength of Joplin’s business community. Pizza Hut, he said, is among more than 400 returning businesses.
Deedra Biggers, now manager of the Carthage Pizza Hut, was working with Lucas the night of the tornado. She survived in the cooler.
“I did not see it coming,” she said. “Chris and I had stepped outside to call our families about the storm. We thought it was going to the north. I remember seeing him talking to a man on the parking lot who was from Florida. Chris wanted him to come inside. He wanted to stay outside to see the storm.
“The next thing I remember is Chris saying: ‘It’s here — run.’ I told people in the kitchen to get into the cooler. We did not have a lot of reaction time.
“Then, the building exploded all at once. There was nothing.’’
Biggers said it was her understanding that the man from Florida did not survive.
Biggers, who has three small children, said she and Lucas were planning to take their children fishing.
“When I think of Chris, I think of his smile and a guy who really liked to fish,’’ she said. “I remember how we held onto each other to keep from flying out of the cooler. What he did that night did not surprise me at all. He was that kind of guy.’’
The company has placed plaques inside and outside of the restaurant that read: “In remembrance of our Pizza Hut family and friends lost in the Joplin tornado of May 22, 2011. We will never forget.’’